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On Digital Citizenship

[I was very kindly asked to give a talk on the broad theme of the ‘digital world’ and here’s what I came up with. My thanks to the meeting organisers and participants and to @psychicyogamat.]

Engendering a sense of digital citizenship among internet users, especially younger ones, seems to be gaining currency as a way of addressing the problems caused by the interpenetration of the online and offline worlds. I will try to explore the idea of digital citizenship mainly aiming at teasing out a fundamental difficulty, one that precedes and underpins the familiar problems such as defining jurisdictions, that we will have to address if we want the concept to do any real work for us.

Never shying away from what might seem absurd at first sight, fiction has done much of the legwork of imagining this for us. A recent example is the recent TV programme Years and Years, written by Russell T. Davies for the BBC.

Spoiler alert!

The show portrays the struggles of a fairly typical English middle class family, the members of which are nevertheless meant to be representative of a cross-section of real English society, as they plough their way through a dystopian near future, which the writer extrapolates from current developments such as the rise of the populist far right (including Brexit and Trump as its central manifestations). One of the characters in the show, Edith, is a political activist and is instrumental in starting a popular revolt that overthrows the authoritarian UK government. Having been exposed to a nuclear explosion earlier on, she suffers a premature death. Her consciousness is then uploaded to a water molecule-based database, apparently the optimal platform for hosting consciousness. As it transpires, the whole show has been the recounting of events from Edith’s memory.

More about Edith soon but for now let us keep for now an idea that can serve as a useful counterfactual: transhumanism.

Note that there are some who believe that it is possible, though not yet, to force consciousness out of a human brain, strip of it of all other elements that we standardly associate with humanness – the emotions, motion, the senses etc. – and transpose it onto an artificial material basis that will replicate the structure and composition of the cortex and thalamus in our brains. All that is both scientifically and philosophically problematic to say the least. Be that as it may, let’s entertain the possibility for the sake of the argument.

In the fullest sense, transhumans inhabit the digital world and only that. They are stripped of any dimension other than what allows them to inhabit the Cloud. They themselves become information interacting with other information on the terms of the code that creates and structures their environment. This ‘interaction’ should not be thought of in terms of how we understand offline interaction, namely as the mutual encounter of distinct ways of existing in the world. It should rather be thought of as the blending of the same kind of thing: electronic data.

It’s probably difficult for us to get our heads around this but to get a sense of it, imagine that you’re reading something on the web, say a Wikipedia article, and, at the same time, you have access to all the background information and to information twice removed from what you immediately see and so on. Now imagine that you are that article and that all the background information becomes part of you and you become part of it.

This is not to say that it impossible to think of a transhuman as having an identity. If we think of a transhuman as a distinct bundle of information that has maintained awareness of its original coding at the point of input, its consciousness might be distinct enough through exclusion and difference while, at the same time, forming a seamless totality with the rest of the online data.

With all that in mind, one might be tempted to consider transhumanism to be the perfect form of citizenship.

From the very conception of the modern state, citizenship has been theorised in terms of the need to reconcile the with the they so as to construct a justifiable, conflict-free, and sustainable we. Each of us has desires, views, abilities, which more often than not pull in opposite directions to those of others in the same time and space. The challenge has always been to transform these tensions into a community, which will maintain both the individuality of each member and establish itself as a pluralistic but distinct body. Philosophers have attempted to theorise this in a wide range of ways. To mention but a few: surrendering decision-making to a higher authority in order to meet the second-order need for predictability and co-ordination; devising a hypothetical contract, which is a construction of the rational and other-regarding considerations that counterfactually bind everyone in the community; disposing of the mediation of ideas such as property between the community and material resources.

This ideal of a collective free of conflict seems to be perfectly realised in a transhuman society. The code accommodates or generates content but the content itself is of no importance. There can be no contradictions, unacceptable or otherwise, and any statement sits comfortably next to its refutation. There is no clash of values, and of course nor a need to balance them, simply because there are no values. All difference is reconciled by the code and everyone can co-exist as information with everyone else.

And yet, I’m sure that most might find it difficult to reconcile transhumanism with our standard understanding of citizenship.

Let us return to Edith Lyons, who, as she is about to die and be transposed entirely into the Cloud, says to the technicians who have uploaded her consciousness:

“You’re wrong. Everything you’ve stored, all those downloads, bits of me that you’ve copied onto water. You’ve got no idea what we really are. I’m not a piece of code. I’m not information, all these memories. They’re not just facts. They’re so much more than that. They’re…my family…my lover. They’re my mum, my brother who died years ago. They’re love. That’s what I’m becoming: love. I am love.”

Edith’s misgiving seems to be that reducing her to raw, coded data will transform her mode of being more radically than scientists assume – indeed, that she will emerge impoverished – because it will deduct those levels of meaning, which cannot be coded. We should note in particular that she directly associates that irreducible meaning to her relations with others. She seems to believe that her future existence will be incomplete in relation to her life in this world once her family and her lover are removed. She then goes on to specify this in terms of the emotions. Edith regards her transformation into data as a simultaneous transformation of her existence in the non-digital world into love, into something that remains of her in the lives of those with whom she has been closely associated.

That a certain kind of relation to others is what is lost in the transfer to the transhuman domain seems certainly correct but it seems to me that to say that love or, its political equivalent, philía, will be lost upon entering a transhuman mode of existence, is to put the cart before the horse. However we think of love and philía – as evaluative attitudes, values in themselves, relationships – they hang on something antecedent. That is that we need to pin down if we are to understand why our existence will be radically transformed in the transhuman sphere. To do so, we need to reach a basic level, one that will not yet have been imbued with meaning or value and that cannot be replicated in the digital world.

It seems to me that the most rudimentary thing about our existence is that, as embodied beings, we experience the world in time and space. Political philosophy has consistently found it difficult to reconcile our material constitution with a normative scheme without side-lining or diminishing the importance of either. More often than not, embodiment is considered normatively inert while reason is entrusted with all the jurisgenerative work. At the other end of the spectrum, some believe that everything is played out at the material level and downplay the normative force of reason as secondary at best and imaginary at worst.

We don’t, however, have to take sides and get embroiled into that perennial controversy to notice something of the first significance. All attempts at theorising our political co-existence aim at making sense of our material connection to our environment and to each other. They are ways of negotiating and structuring space and time so as to place and integrate us within them. There are, of course, those who dispute this. It is not uncommon for philosophers, especially those in the Platonic and Kantian tradition, to regard our materiality and the materiality of our environment as a constraint, something that we should try to rein in if not overcome altogether by employing our reason and justifying the use of coercion, coercion which is mostly material and comes in the form of restrictions of bodily movements.

But why should embodiment be considered a burden? True enough, if we had infinite time, space and material resources, then there would have been no need for any coercive intervention. That we don’t live in a limitless world, however, and that we therefore have to place some boundaries so as all of us to be able to have a share of the common space in time is more correctly seen as a completion of our material existence. We complement each other through existing and acting in the material world and this is not a regrettable inevitability but rather a necessary part of the very possibility of our being in the world. We fulfil ourselves through our mutual interdependence with others and this cannot be otherwise because action is never in a vacuum. To put it more simply, nothing we ever do is independent from the actions of others.

So, in a sense, the collective is always there though it still remains for us to work out the normative implications of our necessary interdependence and specify those implications in norms that will re-form the collective as a body political, of which we will be members, though we obviously cannot hope that this will be perfect and undisrupted.

Let us return to the transhuman society. Imagine that Edith’s family and lover and the people that she helped to fight for and achieve freedom are all eventually uploaded onto the Cloud. Even so, even with all of them occupying the same domain, her complaint that her existence is radically transformed still holds. And, in light of what I have said above, we can now see that this is so because of the loss of materiality. Transhuman life is, of course, dependent on matter – servers, cables, computer terminals, or in the case of Edith, water – but all this is external to it. Being entirely immaterial themselves transhumans have no sense of or indeed need for time and space. In a sense, this is the reversal of our condition. Time and space frame all of our experience and yet we don’t experience them directly; we only have access to the material events which they make possible. Transhumans have no experience of the material basis, on which code is inscribed, but only of the timeless and spaceless domain that code creates for them to live in. Note that I am not talking about the ubiquity of data that track their user or are accessible from multiple locations but rather about the very ontological standing of transhumans.

So what? What should we make of this radical difference between humans and transhumans? Why does it matter that an imaginary version of humanity experiences the domain that it occupies in a way to which we can relate with great difficulty, if at all?

Let’s try to answer that by coming back to our real world for a second.

The concept of ‘digital citizenship’ is being employed more and more frequently as a way of tackling the problems that have emerged from the expansion of the digital domain and the proliferation of digital activities, problems such as hacking, bullying, fake news etc.

Of the various conceptions of digital citizenship, let us focus on that developed by the Council of Europe. The CoE singles out 10 digital domains underpinning the overall concept of digital citizenship, which reflect the necessary democratic competences of citizens. The domains are divided into three areas.

  1. Being online

Access to the digital environment and inclusion through competences to overcome digital exclusion and the skills needed by future citizens to participate in digital spaces that are open to every kind of minority and diversity of opinion.

A special attitude and willingness to develop learning and creativity in digital environments.

The ability to interpret, understand and express creativity through digital media, as digitally literate critical thinkers.

  1. Well-being online

Developing online ethical behavior and an attitude of empathy to enhance the ability to recognise and understand the feelings and perspectives of others.

Developing a set of attitudes, skills, values and knowledge that render them more aware of issues related to health and well-being.

e-Presence and communications refers to the development of the personal and interpersonal qualities that support digital citizens in building and maintaining an online presence and identity as well as online interactions that are positive, coherent and consistent.

  1. Rights online

Active participation relates to the competences that citizens need to be fully aware of when they interact within the digital environments they inhabit in order to make responsible decisions, while participating actively and positively in the democratic cultures in which they live.

Rights such as privacy, security, access and inclusion, freedom and expression &c. and responsibilities such as ethics and empathy to ensure a safe online environment for all.

Privacy, which concerns the personal protection of one’s own and others’ online information; security, which is related to one’s own awareness of online actions and behaviour.

There is a blend of elements in this largely aspirational scheme, which aims at striking a balance between autonomy and heteronomy, enforceability and self-motivation note, for example how ‘ethics’ features both as an attitude and as a set of normative demands) . As such it raises many of the same questions as traditional political philosophical models: what work does each of these elements do? What is the relationship between enforceable duties and stability? How exactly do these aspects of digital citizenship relate to inequalities between digital citizens in the non-digital world?

Much can be said about all that but, for our purposes in this context, I will focus on a tension that relates to what I have said so far.

Notice two significant things about the CoE’s model of digital citizenship.

The first is that, whatever the interplay between them, all elements of the scheme aim at negotiating citizens’ material relations with each other, with their environment, and also with themselves. This is obvious in some cases, such as the health and well-being aim, but it is still the case even if it does not appear on the surface. For example, developing an ethical sensitivity and an attitude of empathy is laden with the notions of pain, harm, personal space and so on.

That the model never escapes the material boundaries of a non-digital community becomes particularly manifest in how the CoE regards e-presence. It defines it as “how you maintain your presence online and extends to your personal and interpersonal qualities that guide you in maintaining your digital reputation and digital identity”. This is based on the fundamental assumption that one’s online presence is nothing but a reflection of one’s presence in the offline world. The difference is that the former, being a snapshot of it, can distort the latter and cause identity and relationship problems to the user. A corollary to this is that e-presence can be perfectly controlled from outwith the digital world through raising users’ self-awareness and sharpening their skills at representing their ‘true selves’ (let’s set aside the rather bold and insufferably clichéd assumption that there is such a thing as a true self).

The second noteworthy point about the CoE parameters of digital citizenship is that they are all addressed to and impose burdens on users, whether these be duties of action/forbearance or civility. Nothing is to be found in the CoE guidelines about the architecture of the digital world and the duties of those who design and control it.

It is, of course, true that the CoE handbook is primarily meant as an educational tool to prepare younger generations for populating the digital world safely and effectively. Indeed, much of the literature and official discourse on digital citizenship takes the same tack. This, however, is in itself a symptom of the problem rather than a justification. Official discourse on the regulation of the internet is still carried out in the shadow of the exceptionalism championed from early on by internet enthusiasts and, more recently, Big Tech. But no sooner do we start talking about citizenship that this exceptionalism becomes unsustainable. To regard digital citizenship in terms parallel to the competences required to participate in a democratic polity without touching on how citizenship is pragmatically and normatively framed, amounts to implying that the institutional design of a non-digital polity is beyond the reach of democratic citizens. This is both wrong and undesirable.

Let me now try to bring all these strands together.

Earlier I painted a rather otherworldly picture of transhumanism because I was concentrating on the possibility of total immersion of humans into the digital world. We don’t, however, have to go that far. The lesson that our counterfactual exploration of transhumanism teaches us holds in our world and the ways, in which we actually interact with the digital domain. Every time we post something on social media, publish something on our blog, make an online purchase, open an online account we obviously do not become entirely subsumed in the digital world. Nevertheless, every input of ours into the digital world becomes detached from us and is subject to the reproductive force of the code. It sheds the dimensional constraints of its origins and begins to exist in the timeless and spaceless digital domain. As soon as it is uploaded it becomes part of a coded whole and becomes vulnerable to being merged with other data on the terms of the code.

Someone well-versed in 20th century social theory might object there is nothing remarkable about this autonomisation of communication input within a new system. If we take the perspective of any closed system, then we will be blinkered to what happens outwith it and be able to trace the life of the input exclusively as part of the system and the reproduction of the system itself. It seems to me, however, that the closure of the digital system is worth thinking about in its own terms for two reasons.

First, to reiterate and emphasise something that I have already said, the assumption that the link between the non-digital and the digital world remains intact is so strong even amongst policy-makers so as to determine the way in which we approach the regulation of the digital world.

Second, the autonomy of the code seems particularly, if not uniquely, productive. Other systems reproduce themselves by adapting the meaning of their informational input to their coding. Digital code not only does that but also has the algorithmic power to reproduce actual content. Bots replicate and alter text and images with remarkable plausibility; user input is automatically hurled around and reiterated across time and space by the code or associated with other content in a way that the meaning of the original is radically transformed; some content is automatically prioritised and promoted and so on. This non agent-originated content might exist legitimately and peacefully within the digital domain, much like a transhuman. Upon re-entering the non-digital world, however, it causes disruption that is distinctive compared to that caused by the moment of encounter between other cognitive systems.

How so?

When the original input resurfaces into the real world, in other words when we begin to regard it not from the perspective of the system any longer but from our perspective, it appears as otherworldly as an imaginary transhuman. Its provenance is unrecognisable; it is not anchored in space or time (consider this: when we post something, say a comment to a YouTube video, we think it is “there” but of course it isn’t because there is no “there”, it is at millions of places at the same time); it is free of conflict; its trajectory opaque even to itself. Encountering something so outside history would have all sorts of effects but, to concentrate on the political, which is our current concern, it would radically challenge the very foundations of our political communities. Among other things, it would render impossible attribution and therefore responsibility. The upshot of this would be the undermining of the liberal assumption regarding the discursive/antagonistic nature of our constitutional democracies. It would also erode the necessary level of trust necessary for them to operate, because trust needs to be grounded in something that is outside it, in some degree of knowledge or justified belief.

We therefore have no option but to somehow try to make sense of what resurfaces onto our non-digital discourses. For this to be possible, we will have to adapt it to the categories available to us, categories which underpin our conceptions of discourses and individual agency. We have to contextualise it, embed it in time and space, relate it to the material way in which we experience the world, to the familiar modes of human communication.

We customarily do this, instantaneously and largely unreflectively upon encountering code. We can only see it as content, we translate it, we attribute it, we try to recognise it. What often makes the adaptation possible is that the identity stamp of the input is not altogether lost, at least not always. Both on the level of code and the level of content a trace of the origin remains and it bears name or other identifying marks either of the individual or the off-line discourse that the input had initially been part of.

But that stamp is, of course, nothing but a trace. Circulating through the code our input has been transformed into something that is on the surface connected to its origin but instead of being determined by it, determines it, almost paradoxically bending cause and effect relations, in a way that can cohere with the manner in which we relate to each other in the offline world. In doing that, we have to treat it, much as the CoE does in its understanding of digital citizenship, as if its lifespan has been entirely transparent and controllable.

As a result, we fail to take into account that our e-presence is dual: on the one hand, it is the real user who develops a certain cognitive, emotional and evaluative attitude to others, an attitude which is inescapably anchored in materiality. On the other hand, there are the traces of us that float in the digital world, develop their own dynamic, are merged with other data on terms that we cannot control. These eventually become informational output, which is inevitably misread as soon as it re-enters offline world discourses.

It therefore transpires that we cannot speak of digital citizenship without accounting for this splitting of the self and our discourses that happens in the traffic of information across the online and the offline worlds. We cannot, as many, including the CoE, do, pretend that there is perfect symmetry between those two domains and ignore the distortion of the latter while pig-headedly treating the former as a mere extension.

The question then, of course, is how we might be able to address this so as to align our transhuman dimension with our offline existence and therefore manage to employ digital citizenship in a meaningful and productive way?

Predictably, an answer to that is not forthcoming but, nevertheless, let me canvass a couple of concluding, broad brush thoughts.

If the asymmetry between input and output and online and offline content is due to the intervention of code, then it is quite obvious that what needs to change is the code. We should remember that the architecture of the internet is not an unchangeable natural fact. It is the product of choices, discourses, technologies, which are perfectly traceable and attributable. It therefore can be changed to serve the purpose of realising a unitary form of citizenship at least, in the first instance, in that inhabiting the digital world will not be an obstacle to meaningful, free participation in offline polities.

Lest some are loath to allow the more stringent regulation of code, let me say two things. First, that whereas code is privately controlled, its results are public in the very narrow sense of them being political. This already makes code itself of public significance therefore eligible for regulation. Second, should anyone, like the early utopians of the internet, still believe that code provides a space of perfect freedom, one should stop and consider that if it is so, then it is a space of freedom for beings that we are yet not: transhumans.

  • Article reposted with permission from the author.
  • Dr. Manolis Melissaris was born in Athens, Greece and he completed a law degree there and then moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, where he studied some more (MSc, PhD). He subsequently spent fifteen years teaching and writing on philosophy and the criminal law at various universities in England (Manchester, Keele, London School of Economics). Since 2017 he lives in Cyprus and writes other things, some of which will appear here. He also runs a pop-up restaurant, The λoneλy oλive.

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